But those closest to the 26-year-old Swartz say the hacker prodigy wasn't out to be a hero. Rather, he was a painfully shy young man who felt passionately that government and big business had hijacked the Web and hoped to make a difference.
In the end, they say, Swartz failed to fully appreciate the threat he embodied to some.
"It was an act of personal risk," said James Grimmelmann, a professor at New York Law School who had known Swartz for six years. "I don't think he understood just how much the system would come down on him over it."
Swartz, a wunderkind who helped create Reddit and RSS, the technology behind blogs, podcasts and other Web-based subscription services, was found dead Friday in his New York apartment.
Swartz's friends and family blame federal prosecutors for his suicide, saying they pursued him relentlessly in the years since he helped post millions of federal court documents for free online rather than the few cents per page charged by the government through its electronic archive. He was never indicted. But three years later, he was charged in Boston with using the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's computer network to download nearly 5 million academic articles from an online clearinghouse for scholarly journals.
His lawyer, Elliot Peters, said prosecutors were insisting he plead guilty to all 13 felony charges and serve four to six months in prison or go to trial and face up to 35 years. Swartz rejected that offer, saying he didn't want to be branded a felon.
Since his death, his family, friends and supporters have unleashed a torrent of anger online: a petition calling on President Barack Obama to fire the federal prosecutor who charged him, a flood of copyrighted academic papers put online for anyone to see and a flurry of furious rants on Twitter. Though even some of his supporters say they believe Swartz broke the law, they say the penalties for a crime they equate with trespassing are inordinately harsh.
This much is certain, though: Regardless of how he may have viewed himself, in death Swartz has become the face of a raging debate over how hard the government treats electronic protests in the Internet age.
U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz on Wednesday extended her "heartfelt sympathy" to Swartz's loved ones but continued to defend the charges against him and said her office had acted properly. She said she understood there was anger felt by people who believe her office's prosecution of Swartz was unwarranted and was tied to his suicide.
"I must, however, make clear that this office's conduct was appropriate in bringing and handling this case," Ortiz said in an emailed statement. "The career prosecutors handling this matter took on the difficult task of enforcing a law they had taken an oath to uphold, and did so reasonably."
Ortiz had said earlier that "stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars" and that the victim is harmed "whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away." But she insisted her office never sought maximum penalties in Swartz's case and never told his attorneys it intended to.
Robert Swartz, who said at his son's funeral that he was "killed by the government," said in a later interview that his son occasionally got depressed but was never diagnosed with clinical depression and never took medication for it. The suicide, he said, was "due to the fact that he was put under relentless, incredible pressure."
Whether Swartz broke the law or not, many supporters see him as their protagonist, a modern-day leader of the "free culture" movement to make information available on the Internet at no charge.
"This crime had no victims. He wasn't ever intending to profit in ANY way, not one penny," said Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for the British newspaper The Guardian who had communicated with Swartz online over the years. "It was really just a political act to protest a system in pursuit of a noble cause. ... I mean, the idea that he needs to be locked up in a prison as a menace to society is just obscene."
Greenwald called Swartz "heroic" and even compared him to King, the late civil rights leader.
"I think when you engage in civil disobedience, you make a calculation about the price that you're likely to have to pay," Greenwald, a former litigator, said in a telephone interview from his home in Brazil.
Some kind of punishment "is an important part of the social process," he acknowledged - but not as much as Swartz faced.
Journalist Juan Williams, the author of several books on the civil rights movement, said the comparison with King only goes so far.
"I think that Mr. Swartz IS a King-like figure for this generation in the sense that he was willing to challenge what he viewed as unjust laws," Williams said. "Where the analogy breaks down for me is that ... (Swartz) did not understand that in taking up this fight and bearing THIS cross, he was going to expose himself to tremendous political and emotional cost."
Swartz's family said he never thought of himself that way and may have cringed at such comparisons. His girlfriend, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, would disagree with the characterization of what he was trying to do in the case of the online academic clearinghouse, known as JSTOR.
"I don't think that Aaron believed he committed any crime," she said. "I think Aaron would have under some circumstances engaged in civil disobedience, but this wasn't one of those cases."
Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, who had known and admired Swartz for more than a decade, agreed with Swartz's father.
"He was impatient to achieve something," said Lessig, faculty director of Harvard's Safra Center for Ethics, where Swartz was once a fellow.
Lessig said he was confident that Swartz was "surprised by the extremeness of their characterization of what happened" in the JSTOR case.
"So, unlike Martin Luther King, who might have been marching into Bull Connor's dogs, I don't think everything here was completely obvious," Lessig said. "But I'm sure he understood here that he was undertaking a significant risk."
Joel Tenenbaum, a former Boston University student who was sued by the Recording Industry Association of America and ordered to pay $675,0000 for illegally downloading and sharing songs on the Internet, says he empathized with Swartz.
"If you double-park your car, the worst you expect is to have your car towed and have to pay a couple of hundred dollars," he said. "You don't expect to lose your car over it. You don't expect to be put in prison for it."
Lessig said Swartz couldn't conceive of why the government would consider him enough of a threat to warrant special attention. And his failure to appreciate his symbolic value, Lessig said, "might have led him to be more reckless than he otherwise would have been."
"His naivete was a vice," Lessig said. "But it was a vice of the best possible kind."
"I think he would be completely astonished at the action that his death has provoked," Lessig said. "And I certainly think a deeper appreciation of the love of the Net for him would have made it harder for him to take the ultimate step that he did."